- Apr 8, 2018
- Coffeeville, TX
By-Edward T. Cotham Jr.
Title-Sabine Pass: The Confederacy's Thermopylae
Publisher- University of Texas Press
Pages-274, including index, bibliography and extensive notes
A couple of months ago, I decided to start researching the 2nd Battle of Sabine Pass, and I asked a friend who is very well researched on the battle what book he would recommend first. His reply was "Cotham is the final authority." and taking that into account I picked up a copy of this book, and with his great writing, extensive notes, and great research... Yeah I second that a hundred percent!
For most folks, they either:
A. Never heard of Sabine Pass
B. Heard of it, but look at it as an inconsequential skirmish
C. Heard of it, and look at it as one of the most lopsided battles of all time, with the wrong side winning numbers wise
D. Look upon it as the Alamo refought with Texas victorious that time around
In his book, Cotham shows its a little of all four. He begins with showing us an 1882 speech by Jefferson Davis to the Southern Historical Society in New Orleans, where he spoke of the "Jeff Davis Guards" and their stand against thousands of Union troops in a mud fort winning a victory in a battle greater than Thermopylae, where most folks listening may have never heard of it. From there we get right into the history of Sabine Pass's beginnings, through to the 1st Battle of Sabine Pass. We get a picture and history of the Confederate and Union participants, and we get to see the construction of Fort Griffin. We get introduced to the two engineers who designed a Confederate fort manned by Irishmen, (along with some Englishmen who were members of the Davis Guard that Cotham did not forget like most folks have), by a Pole named Valery Sulakowski, and a Swiss engineer who supervised the slaves who built it named Julius Kellersburg. A fort that withstood an actually well planned Union assault that went wrong from beginning to finish, with finger pointing abounding.
Before going further, I just got to say, a Confederate fort designed and built by a Pole and a Swiss, manned by Irishmen and Englishmen, in Texas, beating the snot out of a combined US Navy and Army invasion force is hilariously ridiculous when I think about it. But it happened...
Plus when the dust settled the only Union General to emerge relatively unscathed, and probably had the right idea of what the Union should have done was General Nathanial Banks! BANKS for God's sake, who was not even there and sitting in an office in New Orleans saying they should have followed his advise. Just in case no one knows, Banks was a political general, who was famous for getting "whipped" by Stonewall Jackson left and right during the Shenandoah Campaigns of 1862, and for his thrashing at the hands of General Richard Taylor during the Red River Campaign of 1864, but forgotten for his successes at Port Hudson. In a way, its hilarious that a politician playing at general, famous for incompetence, was the smart one in the Union Military hierarchy at Sabine Pass.
I suppose Sabine Pass was a place where the rules didn't apply. 45 Confederates severely damaging and forcing the surrender two Union ships, one commanded by an officer held in high regard by Admiral Farragut, and scaring off the Army landing force would point to the rules not existing at the place.
But when all is said and done, much to the possible disappointment of some, Cotham shows us, that the battle was not so much won by the Confederacy, but lost by the Union. I could go on, on that score, but I don't wish to spoil the book. This book does an excellent job of taking the reader back to the decks of the ships, and parapets of the fort, and does an astounding job of showing us that this wasn't just two inconsequential battles, but a long game of cat and mouse, with many CW notables, both there, and elsewhere, playing a constant game of chess to decide the wartime fate of Texas, everywhere from the decks of blockaders, to the offices of Generals and Admirals, moving they're pawns, knights and rooks to and fro to either maintain their hold, or conquer one small Pass on the Texas/Louisiana border in the Gulf of Mexico.
Not a Trans-Mississippi fan? Not a blockade fan? If you answered yes to either of those two, I'd still recommend this book. Just because this happened all the way out in Texas, and not in Virginia, or Tennessee doesn't mean it's of no value. Speaking on the battle itself, combined with Chickamauga, this failed invasion of Texas caused the United States Credit Rating to fall, (albeit temporarily), and the Davis Guards defending the fort were the only Confederate soldiers to be issued medal during the War. No soldier under Lee, Brag, or Johnson can claim such noteworthiness and obscurity at the same time. This book, is the best way to see and learn about the men on both sides, and try's to help see it from they're prospective.
Just because no Confederates died, (yeah forgot to mention, not a single Confederate casualty other than minor burns or wounds, no deaths), and the Union dead didn't tally up into the thousands, doesn't mean this battle didn't have any meaning. This book is perhaps the best final argument for that, and shows that a battle, or battles in this case, where there's no massive lines of battle with banners flying, and officers rallying regiments to give the last full measure, can still be a desperate bloody affair, with far reaching consequences.
Plus any book about battle with only six cannons on one side (two of them already busted up and questionably repaired, and another disabled right after the battle started), versus twenty-six, and a invasion force of thousands, and the defenders emerging victorious without a death, is a book EVERY American Civil War enthusiast or researcher should read.
Grab up a copy for yourself, and enjoy.
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